Music Of The Hills

Ripe is a pretty village in the lush Sussex countryside easily reached from Eastbourne or Lewes.

On the evening of July 1 2016, the centenary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, its church rang with English music, some of it with Great War associations. More particularly, the chosen music had links with the beautiful South Downs, now at last recognized by National Park status.

John Ireland settled in a converted windmill at Washington (Sussex). His 1953 setting of a poem by James Kirkup, The Hills, found the Norse Singers in great form.

It was followed by three ravishing short works by Brighton-born Frank Bridge, who was born in the same year as Ireland (1879). He settled in Friston. His Noveletten demonstrated the command and passion of the Norse String Quartet: Iain Gibbs (violin), his twin brother Mark (viola), Toby Hawks (violin) and Antero Manocchi (cello).

William Blake lived in Felpham. Three of his Songs Of Innocence poems have recently been set to music by Nathan Waring (a resident of Ripe). We were privileged to hear their first performance. Tenor George Chambers, pianist Timothy Thornton and violinist Iain Gibbs did full justice to this gorgeous new work. My one regret is that no-one, it seems, thought to record this historic event. My tenner for a CD would have most happily been given.

The Norse Quartet played two movements from Ireland’s Downland Suite, which was conceived as a four-movement work for brass-band. Without doubt in a performance so committed as this, strings seemed the right instruments.

Elgar’s 1914 Death On The Hills gave the Norse Singers another chance to shine. Their tonal balance was admirable, and they coped well with a strange translation from the Russian. Elgar liked it, and it may be that the act of composition was part of his decision three years later to move to Fittleworth in Sussex, where he wrote some of his finest works.

After the interval (excellent wine included in the ticket price) Herbert Howells’s Piano Quartet in A Minor received a fineperformance from the Norse Quartet and Timothy Thornton. It dates from the fateful year 1916, and is dedicated to poet and musician Ivor Gurney who was so destroyed mentally by his war service that he died in an asylum. So powerful is Howells’s music that we needed Bridge’s setting of Sir Roger De Coverley to send us home in good spirits after so fine an evening of superb music-making. And a final pat on the back for whoever put together so well-written and informative a printed programme.

By Robin Gregory.